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Passings / He beat cancer by never letting cancer beat him

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Cancer does not get beaten. It gets beaten back. It is a nasty little sprite that leaves a shadow in one's mind, even if it has been chased away from one's body. Unfortunately, sometimes it hangs around to tease and then, sometimes, to destroy.

Yet unlike diseases and accidents that take people without warning, cancer gives all its patients, including me, a gift.

It gives us time.

Some are graced with more time than others, but it gives us each a chance to pursue an unfulfilled wish, to make amends, or -- even if it's just a childhood diary in a sock drawer -- to "hide the evidence." Cancer does not turn a curmudgeon sweet or procrastinators into planners. But it offers those it inhabits a chance to deepen their lives, in ways and at times they never imagined.

My friend and associate in the diplomatic community, Neil Bardal, kept looking for ways to deepen his life and those of others until the day he passed from this realm to the next, as he might have characterized it.

Knowing of my own experience with cancer, Neil passed on a piece of conversation from a fellow Rotarian, John Dolman, who at the time was weakening from the disease.

John had told Neil that they "were going to beat this thing." A few months after that, Neil told me he had figured out what John was really saying. "Beating it" had nothing to do with staying alive. They were beating cancer because it didn't defeat their spirit.

The language of the cancer world is strikingly aggressive: attack, hit, battle, knock out, fight, win, lose.

John and Neil waged that war. They mustered their strength and they "won," staying vital until their last moments. At the same time, they incorporated a whole different sort of language, the language of dignity and caring, of fulfilment and legacy, of community and peace.

Neil made full use of his gift of time. As part of his life's work to ensure integrity within the funeral profession, he spent his last years building a centre for end-of-life services that he planned as a place in which all traditions and all faiths would have a home.

He never stopped working on his passion to make memorial services and funerals be seen as simply another in the procession of events that punctuate our lives. They are not to be dreaded, but as anticipated and appreciated as marriages and christenings and bar mitzvahs. Why, indeed, we discussed, should we be put off by the cultural practice of having picnics in cemeteries?

I was privileged to attend one of Neil's Blue Christmas services. He created one of these multi-denominational gatherings, not yet well known, to offer a safe place for participants to express their "blue" feelings in a season generally characterized by frivolity. There was a restrained and touching unleashing of grief that strengthened those present in a way that tears stifled for fear of embarrassment in a more traditional setting might not provide.

Neil researched and presented to civic groups the story of this father's experience as a proud Canadian prisoner of war in the Second World War. He turned his reflections on how those events had affected his family into a fierce desire to write a book -- not on what actually happened, but on what characters unleashed from convention might accomplish.

As he was dying, he and his co-writer were able to complete his fantasy tale, something thousands of would-be novelists just dream of doing. He gave relentlessly of his time and resources to charities throughout Winnipeg, and at the time of his death was the most recent in a long line of decent, committed presidents of the Rotary Club of Winnipeg, where I was warmly welcomed as a member.

He also remained an active member of Winnipeg's Consular Corps. It was within this group of career diplomats and honorary consuls that I first came to know Neil, the long-serving honorary consul for Iceland.

Honorary Consuls provide representation on behalf of a country to which they have historic roots or previous ties, but where there is no full-time diplomatic mission. These local citizens provide valuable services for little or no remuneration while engaging in full-time work elsewhere.

Winnipeg's group of honorary consuls is a particularly rich mix of academics, politicians, and business people. A veritable "folklorama" at our monthly meetings, getting to know the quality people of Winnipeg's Corps was one of the exquisite pleasures of serving in this city.

Until the very end, Neil was a tireless advocate for strong Canadian-Icelandic relations. He showed his beloved Gimli to a host of foreign visitors who were drawn into its charms through his passionate telling of its story.

In fact, for a man whose exterior presence spoke of stereotypical Nordic stoicism, Neil's quiet passion in so many areas is his living legacy. There was no better listener, no stronger advocate, no better friend.

He left a message for all of us. Death will not defeat us. Its looming presence lives with us so that we all have the opportunity to express ourselves with passion.


Mary Speer is the former U.S. consul to Winnipeg. She now resides in Washington.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2010 H12

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